By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – This fall, the Department of Education plans to announce changes to PLUS loans that officials say will make it easier for parents to qualify for the financial aid program that thousands of Black college students rely on every semester.
In an effort to combat a rising number of parent loan defaults in 2011, the department began to enforce more strict borrowing guidelines, a move that disproportionately affected Black parents, especially ones that lost homes and jobs and were burdened by high levels of debt incurred during the Great Recession.
“Since the change, we’ve been working directly with the schools to try and re-enroll as many students as possible. Our data basically says that, even in those first cohorts, we were able to get 76 percent of students enrolled into the colleges that they applied to originally,” said Jim Shelton, the secretary of education and executive director of the task force for My Brother’s Keeper. “Additionally, we just finished the rule-making process that allows us to adjust the flexibility around the PLUS loan program and that will come out more formally in the fall.”
Shelton said that teams from the federal student aid organization are working with college admissions officials at historically Black colleges and universities to help students apply for aid.
In private conversations, some HBCU presidents say the damage to Black enrollment is more severe than the White House describes.
The policy revisions will make credit requirements for the PLUS program more flexible, according to Shelton. He said the updated eligibility standards that the Department of Education is going to put into effect will allow close to 300,000 students who may have been denied under the old rules to qualify for PLUS loans without having to go through the reconsideration process.
Department of Education officials discussed the PLUS loan program, the My Brother’s Keeper initiative and other topics related to improving educational outcomes for students of color, during a recent meeting with reporters.
Officials with the department said that for the first time in the nation’s history, public schools from kindergarten through the 12th grade will enroll more minority students than White pupils.
“Urban school districts across the nation are already 80 percent African American, Hispanic, and Asian American,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS), a national network of urban public school systems. “We are the future.”
Casserly said that 40 percent of Black and Hispanic students that live below the poverty line and 32 percent of the nation’s African American males attend in CGCS schools.
The CGCS network, working in conjunction with the president’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, pledged to increase the pipeline of high achieving students of color by expanding access to preschool, advanced placement and gifted classes and decreasing the disproportionate rates of suspensions and expulsions.
“What’s nice about what’s happened so far is that we’re starting to gather the best practices from cities that have been working on suspensions issues, that have been working on growing their [advanced placement], gifted and talented programs districts that have been trying to grow the number of African Americans and Hispanics in their preschool classes,” said Casserly.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that by any measure, our young men of color are not where they need to be.
According to the Schott Foundation for Public Education the national Black-White male graduation gap was more than 25 percent in 2009-2010.
Black male students also endure higher rates of suspensions, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement than their White peers. Black children, some as young as 3-years-old, account for roughly half of preschoolers suspended more than once.
Duncan said that he was stunned to learn that schools were suspending students that young.
The education chief said that in a lot of ways the research for My Brother’s Keeper came right out of Civil Rights Data Collection project, which talked about the lack of access to advanced placement classes, the lack of access to early childhood education, disparate labeling for special education and the school to prison pipeline.
“Academically, [boys and young men of color] don’t have the tools they need to be successful and, to really challenge that status quo in a really profound way, we think this is absolutely the right thing to do,” said Duncan.
Duncan said that the Department of Education will challenge states to not only take a very open and honest look at the mix of their teachers working in disadvantaged communities, but to also develop plans to address any disparities they find.
A Center for American Progress report on improving access to effective teachers in public schools highlighted The System for Teacher and Student Advancement (TAP), an “approach that provides opportunities for career advancement, professional growth, instructionally focused accountability, and competitive compensation for educators.”
TAP currently supports 200,000 students and 20,000 teachers.
The report also showcased North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ strategic staffing initiative designed to assist low-performing students that staffed poor schools with talented teachers and “priority access to district resources.”
The CAP report also recommended cultivating talented teachers and school administrators, developing better data collection and evaluation tools, and compensating highly effective teachers when they move to poor schools where they’re needed the most.
“If we all believe that great teachers make a difference in students’ lives, if we all believe that great principals make a huge difference in students’ lives, we have to be much more creative in how we attract, support, and retain that great talent in underserved communities,” said Duncan.
Duncan said that the Department of Education wants to take pockets of creativity and innovation to scale.
“Anyone who has historically said that providing a high quality education for Black kids and Brown kids was just important for that community, that’s simply not the case,” said Duncan. “This is the right thing to do for our nation.”
Duncan continued: “If we don’t have great educational opportunities, [advanced placement] classes, reduced dropout rates, and [more] kids college, if we’re not making that the norm for our students of color, our nation is going to suffer our, economic competitiveness is going to suffer our ability to have upward mobility our ability to have more families entering the middle class and to reduce inequities is going to suffer.”